|Thomas More athletics photo
By Ryan Scott
The Thomas More women rolled over consensus CCIW preseason favorites Wheaton 71-49 to open the season. Big wins against quality opponents are nothing new for the Saints — they haven’t lost more than five games in a season in over a decade, twice going undefeated and winning the national championship game, and, nearly every year, making deep tourney runs.
This season, however, it’s the run before the tournament that will be most interesting. Thomas More is the preseason No. 5 in the D3hoops.com Top 25, but the Saints are missing one thing: a conference schedule. With acceptance to the NAIA not starting until fall of 2019, the Saints scrambled to fill out a slate of games worthy of postseason consideration.
This means a lot of travel. Like ... a lot.
TMU plays 12 games in eight states during the month of December. “We play five games in eight days across three time zones,” says coach Jeff Hans. That doesn’t include a tournament at Hope and one in Miami the following week or three games in three days the week after that. Says Hans, “We worked really hard to schedule on breaks: The players will only miss two days of class all year, but we play 22 of our 25 games between Nov. 9 and Jan. 7.”
Talent has rarely been an issue at Thomas More and this year’s squad continues the tradition, with senior Madison Temple taking her place among D3hoops.com Player of the Year contenders as Abby Owings and Sydney Moss did before her.
“We lost a lot,” says Hans, “But we’ve lost a lot before. Our returning players have been there; they are experienced and know how we want to do things. Our schedule is front loaded, so we don’t have a lot of time to wait; we need to be ready now.”
Ready means being prepared for a slate that involves trips to Chicago (twice), Pittsburgh, Miami, Dallas, Michigan, New York, and Washington State – as well as a few trips “just” two or three hours from home. Only seven games will be played at the Connor Convocation Center this year – unless, of course, TMU survives that schedule and secures hosting duties for the postseason.
Even that will be more of a challenge. With the formation of the AEC, Thomas More won’t even have Pool B to itself; tough squads like Marymount and Cabrini will be battling for what’s expected to be one place in the NCAA Tournament. Pool B teams are eligible for Pool C at-large selection, but that competition can be even more fierce.
One big concern is entering March rusty. “We were very fortunate (former conference foes) Geneva and St. Vincent would allow us to come up there and play. They saved one of their games for us to help us out and get a game in January,” says Hans.
The weekend in Pittsburgh provides two of just three games for Thomas More in the final eight weeks of the season. TMU also joined the ACAA this year, which doesn’t have a regular-season schedule, but provides a conference tournament – vital games for the Saints to be up to speed for one last NCAA title run.
“It may seem crazy,” says Hans, “The University has really helped us have what we need for this one year, to make sure we can go where we need to go. We’ve never done this before, so we’re living it day by day. I don’t know if we’re doing it right, but we’re going through it the best we can.”
|Whitman already had an embarrassment of riches coming back this year and added other players, including Andrew Vickers, who was the Northwest Conference Rookie of the year for Lewis & Clark.
Whitman athletics photo
On the other side of the country, Eric Bridgeland’s Whitman men have a different kind of unique challenge. The No. 4 Blues played 14 guys in their 104-90 win over a strong Letourneau team to open the season. Every Whitman player who took the floor scored, 11 of them saw double-digit minutes; the fifth guy off the bench was former All-MIAC transfer and 20 points-per-game scorer, Michael Gutierrez. It’s safe to say there’s a collection of talent and experience in Walla Walla that few teams have ever seen.
“We’re petitioning the NCAA for 40-minute halves,” jokes Bridgeland, who didn’t necessarily plan on such a deep roster. Two starters from the 2016-17 Final Four run, Jase Harrison and Jojo Wiggins get a second chance at a senior season, having missed all of last year with injury, as did touted Bentley transfer, Sam Geschickter, who has yet to even see the floor.
So, Whitman was already replacing Tim Howell, the one starter lost to graduation, with three more. Then Andrew Vickers, former NWC Freshman of the Year called and asked to come. “We’d recruited Andrew heavily out of high school,” says Bridgeland, “At the time he wanted to stay closer to home. After two years, he wanted to come back; you can’t say ‘no’ to one of the best players in our conference.”
Gutierrez, who also missed the 2017-18 season at Macalester with injury, was a bit of a surprise. “I was getting ready to go to bed and this email comes through. You recognize the name because he’s been all-conference and his younger sister goes [to Whitman]. Immediately I sent it to our compliance director and went through the process.”
“It took an incredible amount of courage by Michael. He was the guy at Macalester; even in high school he was a star. For him to step away from that, to say ‘I want a chance to play in the tournament, I want to be challenged, I want to go away from home,’ it speaks volumes for who he is. He is a great relationship guy; he knows everyone already. He’s here, competing and having fun.”
Competition and fun are the two hallmarks of Whitman basketball under Bridgeland. Playing time is awarded on a merit-based system – points earned by practice performance. “The guys are always looking at who’s on their team in practice,” says Bridgeland, “[First team preseason All-American] Joey Hewitt told me the other day, he looked at his squad and thought he had a killer team, until he looked at the other squad and realized they were even better.”
No one feels bad for Bridgeland. Too much talent is a problem any coach would kill for, still – as with the Boston Celtics in the NBA – chemistry and attitude can become an issue when there aren’t enough minutes to go around.
“It’s not the five best players,” says Bridgeland, “It’s the five best players who play well together. We’re working hard to figure that out. More important than what’s happening on the floor, though, is how close we’re becoming as a group. With as many guys as we have, it’s essential.”
On the court performance matters, too, of course, and Whitman scheduled seven games against NCAA Tournament teams from last season; it’s a schedule meant to challenge a roster that’s used to winning. The Blues are 60-3 over the last two seasons.
“Everyone [on the schedule] can beat us and that’s a great thing to prepare us for the tournament,” says Bridgeland, “We don’t look at any team as our rival, because we’re focused on us, how close we can get, how well this team can play together. We hope every opponent is nationally ranked, because that only makes us better.”
“As a process-based team, you go into every contest with the same routine,” continues Bridgeland, “Sometimes you forget that you’re the biggest game everyone’s playing. We put targets on the back of our jerseys this year as a reminder we can be beat. There’s only so much you can tell guys about where they can improve when you’re winning every game. This schedule should help with that.”
No one is going to feel sorry for Bridgeland and the Blues; Whitman has become a dominant program over the last several years, making the national semifinals in 2016-17 and losing to eventual champion, Nebraska Wesleyan, last year, but success leads to its own issues. This season, Bridgeland’s biggest question is whether he has enough shots and minutes to go around.
It helps when there’s a selfless example on the floor every night. “Austin Butler has been our best player for three years,” says his coach, “He led the conference in blocks, steals, and assists last year.” One stat the preseason All-American doesn’t worry about, though, is scoring, so his abilities are often overlooked by teams who don’t have to play against him.
I have yet to mention Jack Stewart, Darne Duckett, and half a dozen other returning players who saw regular minutes. All told, Whitman has nine seniors on the roster and ten guys who would compete for starting spots on any team in the country.
“You never have all the guys all time; there’s always nicks and bruises and ankles that creep up,” adds Bridgeland, “With our style of play it’s nice to have all those guys on the bench.” This season might prove that to be an understatement or this season might end with another disappointment for the Blues, either way it will be worth staying up late to watch how it all pans out, out west.